The Untold Story of the First Indian Pilot, Purushottam Meghji Kabali

Kabali had named his aircraft “Feather of the Dawn” and conducted a religious ceremony at Croydon before his flight. Renowned poet, freedom fighter and the first female governor, Sarojini Naidu, had attended the ceremony.

In the early 1930s, airlines had started expanding their markets globally. Although the aircraft back then were much more compact and could only fly small distances at a time, airline manufacturers and pilots were witnessing a steady growth in new records set in aviation. Pilots across the globe were crossing longer distances, breaking speed records as new airways industries were entering the market.

At the same time, in 1930, an Indian, Purushottam Meghji Kabali had also entered the industry. PM Kabali is considered to be the first Indian pilot although JRD Tata obtained his license one year before Kabali.

Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata was a French-born Indian aviator- an Indian citizen of French ancestry, born in Paris. He became the first licensed pilot in India in 1929.

PM Kabali, however, was the first person of Indian descent to obtain the permit.

A pioneer of Indian civil aviation. Source: Twitter/ Matthew Ward.

In the year 1930, Kabali purchased a Spartan VT-AAT aircraft in England. He planned to fly it from Croydon, in England, through Paris, Rome, Iran, and land in Karachi.

Karachi was still a part of India back then, and Kabali wanted to take this very long route back home, as part of a feat.

The map below (in Marathi) depicts Kabali’s intended route in detail. This route was a bold attempt for the small aircraft that Kabali was flying.

The route that Kabali intended to take. Source: Hampshire Airfields.

Kabali had named his aircraft “Feather of the Dawn” and conducted a religious ceremony at Croydon before his flight. Renowned poet, freedom fighter and the first female governor, Sarojini Naidu, had attended the ceremony. Incidentally, she published a book of poems called “Feather of the Dawn”.

After take-off, the aircraft functioned beautifully, and Kabali hardly had any issues as he crossed Paris, Marseilles, Pisa, Rome and Tunis. It was in Tripoli (Libya) that he had to cut his journey short.

Somewhere between Tobruk and Tripoli in Libya, Kabali was caught in a sandstorm, and the flight crashed. Fortunately, Kabali suffered no serious injuries.

A picture of the crashed plane. Source: Hampshire Airfields.

The crashed “Feather of the Dawn” was loaded on a truck. From Libya, the damaged aircraft was transported to the Bombay Flying Club in parts. The route of the truck and whether the plane was transported only on the road or via sea is still a mystery. Here, Kabali decided to get his precious plane repaired under the supervision of Mr BM Damania.

Although his first aviation challenge was not entirely successful, Kabali never gave up on his passion for flying aircraft.

Right before his Croydon- Karachi flight. Source: Twitter/ Matthew Ward.

After “Feather of the Dawn” was repaired, he flew it and remarked that the “plane flew beautifully”.

In the coming years, PM Kabali became a pilot for “Air Services of India Ltd”, a private airline based in Juhu, Mumbai. This company merged into the Indian Airline Corporation in 1953.

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This was a short story about the first Indian pilot. Even though his position in India’s aviation history is irreplaceable, limited literature is freely available about him. A short Marathi book, called “Vaimanik Kabali” (Pilot Kabali) has been published by Gajanan Shankar Khole, who met and spoke to Kabali about his adventures.

But even this book, as Hampshire Airfields notes, “was meant to be a rapid reader for school children studying in the Marathi medium of instruction.”

(Edited by Shruti Singhal)

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